How Working the Body Can Help the Aging Mind

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on October 25, 2016
woman doing yoga

It shouldn’t surprise older folks when their eyesight gets a little blurrier, their hearing gets a little duller, their joints get a little achier, and their brains get a little slower.

But what if that last part doesn’t have to happen?

It turns out that dementia is not part of the normal aging process. In fact, some forms are not only manageable, but reversible with proper diet and lifestyle choices.A landmark study from Cambridge University suggests that an hour of daily exercise could lower your Alzheimer’s risk by nearly 50%.

How does exercise help an aging mind stay sharp? What are some of the most effective moves for those with dementia?

Why It’s Important

Researchers agree that although exercise can help lower your odds of getting dementia, the thing that brings the most risk of dementia is age. Genetics also play a role.

Still, experts say you should focus on what can be controlled.

One big thing you can control? Your mind.

“There is a lot of data that suggests that keeping intellectually active, whether it’s working, or volunteering, or going to theater or book groups … can be useful in keeping our minds and brains healthy,” says Arthur Kramer, professor emeritus and director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois.

In fact, Kramer points to a four-point plan involving:

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Social interaction
  • Intellectual stimulation


Exercise for Your Mind

How does working the body stimulate the mind?

“The body carries the brain around, and it helps us learn and acquire new information. So it’s good to have both function well.”

And exercise works both. And whatever you do can have big benefits for both.

“You don’t have to be doing triathlons or marathons,” Kramer says, “but moving a bit more helps.”

That can include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming

Things like yoga and tai chi are also good options because they work your body and relax your mind. “It’s also important to stay flexible, to do toning and stretching,” Kramer says.

Resistance and strength training can also help you.

“As we get older, we’re not as strong as we used to be,” Kramer says. “We can’t carry the groceries, or protect ourselves.”

And staying strong can mean the difference between a major injury and a minor one when things go wrong.

“We all trip occasionally, but that’s one reason why old people break their hips and end up in nursing homes, because they’re not able to correct the fall before they hit the ground and damage something,” Kramer says.

To get stronger and more flexible, you can try:

  • Squats
  • Yoga
  • Modified pushups (with your knees on the ground)
  • Pilates

Start with small, easy moves and do more as you’re able. Making the body stronger can do the same for the mind.

“There is some evidence that shows that resistance exercise can be useful,” Kramer says.

Eat for Your Mind

Diet can also help. Try a largely vegetarian diet with omega-3-laden fish and other foods rich in antioxidants, like some fruits and vegetables.

You can even have a bit of wine.

 “You don’t drink a whole bottle by yourself at night, but a glass of red wine could be very useful,” Kramer says.

What if It’s Already Started?

Of course, many of these things help keep aging minds sharp, but what can you do once mental ability begins to decline?

Evidence suggests that exercise can help a lot there, too.

A recent study done at Wake Forest University showed that aerobic exercise -- walking, jogging, biking and the like -- can reduce levels of something called tau. That’s a protein that plays a role in Alzheimer’s and dementia.

In fact, exercise increased blood flow to parts of the brain in people who participated in the study.

As much as we know about the link between exercise and the aging mind, experts say we can always learn more.

“There are still a number of questions to be addressed, but there are many researchers across the world who are researching these issues,” Kramer says.

Show Sources


University of Michigan: “Older and stronger: Progressive resistance training can build muscle, increase strength as we age.”

Alzheimer's Association: "What is dementia?"

Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's International Conference: "Going Beyond Risk Reduction: Physical Exercise May Be An Effective Treatment for Alzheimer's Disease and Vascular Dementia."

Arthur Kramer, PhD, professor emeritus and director, Beckman Institute, University of Illinois.

The Telegraph (UK): "One hour of exercise per week can halve dementia risk," July 13, 2014.

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